Published July 27, 2023
The NBA Time Machine:
Trade Me Once, Shame On You
Good Days Are Mo-ver
Hardly acknowledged was the increasingly unstable nature of the Houston Rockets. The 1981 finalists didn’t quite achieve over the previous season, failing to improve their roster and only seeing forty-six wins. Superstar Moses Malone was so dominant that he could lug an underwhelming cast to a positive record, but the Texas magic faded by the playoffs as they bowed out in the first round.
With Malone now in free agency, the Houston’s hand was forced. They struggled to gauge the value of their franchise great, eventually settling for a yearly offer of 1.5 to 2 million. The Philadelphia 76ers subsequently joined the sweepstakes in shocking fashion, presenting a six-year contract that fell between eleven and fifteen million total. The Rockets opted to match the offer, but their two-time M.V.P. had already felt a warm appreciation from Philadelphia. With his sights now on Julius Erving-led club, Houston was forced to settle for a sign-and-trade to at least reap some benefits from their loss.
The return wasn’t exactly inspiring – all they could muster was a thirty-two-year-old Caldwell Jones and one first-round draft pick. They grabbed a franchise-worst fourteen matches and had no players reach the fifteen-point mark in scoring average.
On the flipside, Philadelphia surged with their new acquisition – their sixty-five wins was the second greatest in 76ers history, and Malone was awarded yet another M.V.P. This made him the first player to win in back-to-back seasons…on different teams.
Worthy of Success?
The Cleveland Cavaliers had asserted themselves as a directionless franchise by the early-80’s, with only three playoff appearances to their name. By mid-February of the 1979-80 season, owner Ted Stepien had playoff hopes – his club may have been 24-37, but optimism guided his decisions. There was a belief in the front office that the Cavaliers could surge in the latter half of the year and secure a playoff berth.
Stepien contacted the Los Angeles Lakers – who were a notably deep team with many unused rotational pieces – for potential trade talks. The seldom-utilized defensive specialist Don Ford was being eyed by Cleveland, and was ultimately traded for sophomore guard Butch Lee and a first-round pick. Lee was a top prospect in the 1978 draft, but injuries soured his value – the Cavaliers wanted somebody proven.
Considering the franchise was expected to be below-average at worst, the pick was not expected to be of significant value. This changed after Cleveland compiled a league-worst record, inflating its worth. Their former trade asset was now valued as the number-one pick, and they had lost it to Los Angeles. This cast a grim cloud on their future, as they could have obtained North Carolina college sensation James Worthy.
A coin flip between the Lakers and San Diego Clippers favored the bigger brother, adding a high-upside rookie to a defending championship team. This was a league-breaking move that helped further deepen their roster, and the Cavaliers were met with side eyes. An already budding dynasty was now boosted by an eventual All-Rookie talent, entirely thanks to Stepien’s hastiness.
We See You!
In accordance with the recent Comeback Player of the Year award, the NBA continued to diversify its regular season honors with two new trophies – the Defensive Player of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year.
The former was intended for the best defender of the season, initially awarded to Sidney Moncrief of the Milwaukee Bucks. The latter was designated for the best “sixth man” – a term synonymous with a bench player – eventually falling into the hands of Philadelphia’s Bobby Jones.
Due to playing alongside better teammates, Malone’s statistics naturally regressed – however, his impact was greater than ever. He led the league in rebounding for the third consecutive season and helped Philadelphia win sixty-five games, resulting in his third M.V.P. award.
Bird’s growth continued as he achieved career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and efficiency. The Celtics may not have clinched sixty games this time around, but it did not change Bird’s status as an M.V.P. runner-up for the third consecutive year.
Now a definitive superstar, the reigning Finals M.V.P. led the NBA in assists as Los Angeles saw fifty-eight victories. He became the seventh player to average ten assists in a season, and the second of the decade after Micheal Ray Richardson.
The third overall pick showed out for his New Jersey club, anchoring a top-ranked defense and and the franchise’s best record since joining the NBA. Williams was also a part of the top rebounding and efficiency leaders.
Gilmore fit perfectly with his new team, continuing his stretch of quality play and vaulting the Spurs to a fifty-win campaign again. He was one of two players to shoot over sixty-percent from the field and maintained his defensive dominance.
The young guard managed to develop further as a hyper-efficient two-way player. He averaged over twenty points per game for the first time and sustained his gritty persona, being awarded the inaugural Defensive Player of the Year award.
Around the League
An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.